Don't Fake It Till You Make It

It all starts with Santa Claus. Like most kids, I declared a belief in him longer than I actually did believe in him for fear of not getting as many, or as good, presents when I finally fessed up. And, like most kids, even though I knew the myth wasn’t true I still felt disappointed, betrayed even, when I asked my mom if he was real and she admitted no. Participating in the fraud brings us all a lot of pleasure. It’s an innocuous lie. We played it with our own daughter. But it’s still a lie, and when it’s revealed as such we lose a little magic and replace it with a little cynicism.

This happens anytime we oppose an obvious truth. Unfortunately, not honestly facing our situation and its challenges has become a recommended coping skill. In the face of adversity we’re encouraged to insist everything’s OK. Oddly, we’re also told to confront our problems. This contradiction of recommendations just makes things worse.

Fake it till you make it is the worst advice imaginable. Yet it’s touted as a sort of dissension therapy that will somehow help a person deal with the very problems they’re ignoring. You can pretend to be anything you want. But you’re not, and the only way to overcome an obstacle like a damaging mood is to face it, admit it, probe it and learn. An honest assessment of whatever holds you back is necessary to achieve stability and to productively work toward the life you’re wasting by faking it.

From family reunions to social media posts people project a positive, full life they don’t always lead. Mental illness is not something to ignore, and you can’t resolve a problem with your thinking simply by thinking something different. You have to be honest to your experience.

I’m in no way advocating that you run out and tell everyone how you really feel. Discretion can help healing, and confession does not require a public airing of suffering. But you have to be honest with yourself and it helps to be honest with those closest to you. If you’re feeling bad don’t pretend all is OK. That won’t make it go away. That won’t make you better. It will only delay, and make more severe, the inevitable confrontation with the truth.

I see this bad advice to imagine everything is OK nowhere more than I see it in the meditation industry. The point of meditation is to overcome suffering. Counterintuitively, this can best be done by fully experiencing your suffering and investigating the thoughts and feelings that aggravate it. You’ll likely find that the thoughts you have about something influence your behavior and emotions more than the thing itself. Then you can investigate which of these thoughts are true and which are not and honestly address your suffering.

You can’t do this if you’re adhering to thoughts that are not true. But the advice to fake it till you make it tells you to do just that.

This is where instructions on meditation get all mixed up. Although we’re told it should be a positive, calming, pleasant experience it’s not. All meditation can do over the long term is present you with what you actually experience right now: good, bad; happy, sad; hope surrender; whatever. Then meditation can help you get in touch with your full experience and reveal the thoughts that betray or encourage you. This quiet investigation of what is really going on, free of the temptation to think things better, will uncover what you really think and what that is doing to you. Then you can work on change.

There is nothing wrong with positive thinking or imaging exercises. To pray for things to get better is to embrace hope and move forward. But you still need to acknowledge your present mood and be realistic in your expectations. You can’t be fake and grow, or get better. Don’t fake it till you make it. Face it. Reach out for help. Set realistic goals. Things are tough but they can get better. This will require that you not run from your problems but turn and face them instead. You can do this.

You’re not fake. The things you are honestly feeling are not fake. Your life and self-image shouldn’t be, either.